When cool weather arrives and harvest season is done, Southern farmers will remember 2006 as exceedingly difficult. Mother Nature has played no cropping favorites — drought, oppressive heat and high energy costs have pummeled all. But after a USDA announcement on Aug. 18, rice farmers can surely claim the cruelest blow.
On that day, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns announced that trace amounts of Bayer's unapproved, genetically modified LibertyLink rice had been found in the U.S. rice supply. Despite FDA assurances that the rice remained safe for consumption, markets dipped quickly.
Farmers who had seen the rising price of rice as a salve for drained bank accounts and hard days in the field immediately began asking questions. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is now tasked with finding answers. Spokesmen for the agency have said that will take at least two or three months.
“It will take some time to sort this out,” said Dwight Roberts, US Rice Producers Association (USRPA) president, at the Missouri Rice Research and Demonstration Farm field day outside Glennonville, Mo., on Aug. 23. “This whole process is generating many rumors and stories. There are a bunch of unanswered questions that we've been trying to get answers to… The situation is extremely unfair to farmers. They were finally looking at a good rice price for the first time in many years.”
Two trading days into the ordeal, Roberts calculated farmers had lost “about $150 million.” This was in response to what amounts to six kernels of rice in 10,000.
Since Johann's announcement, the market has remained on a roller-coaster and farmers' anxieties have hardly calmed as evidenced by several lawsuits filed in federal and Arkansas courts. And more will be filed: even as harvest begins in earnest, attorney/farmer meetings across east Arkansas have been well-attended.
Although every facet of the rice industry was hit with the unwelcome news, many questions were directed at Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland Foods. Claiming 9,000 members, the Riceland co-op handles a third of the nation's rice crop. It was a Riceland customer who first alerted the company to a potential problem last January.
According to Bill Reed, Riceland vice president of public affairs, the months between that initial inquiry and Johann's statement have often felt like “looking in a haystack and not even knowing you're looking for a needle.”
In an Aug. 25 interview, Reed attempted to calm the situation.
“We've spoken with many farmers. They want to know what to do. For our farmer members, it's business as usual. Cut your crop, deliver your crop and bring it to the dryer. We're going to dump trucks as fast as we can just like we always have… We're going to find a way through this situation.”
When Riceland's client alerted the company to a potential problem, Reed said the claim was taken seriously. But the origin of the client's trace finding was baffling.
“Since there was no known commercial production of GM rice, we thought it would be shown as fragments of soybeans or grain dust left in transportation systems. It's in such minute quantities they couldn't determine the material's origin…
“The last thing we expected is this was caused by GM rice. There was none being grown. We even looked at cotton bags — thinking maybe it was in the LibertyLink cotton fibers.”
By June, “we were finally thinking, ‘this looks like it could be Bayer's product.’ So we talked with Bayer, sent them a sample and they began looking.
“It was July 31 when Bayer called us and told us what they'd found. They told us they were legally required to report their findings to USDA. They did that before (the 24 hour requirement) was up.”
Johanns' announcement came 18 days later.
Richard Bell is uniquely qualified to comment on the GM rice imbroglio. Having first worked at the USDA during the Ford administration, Bell made a move to Riceland. After running the co-op since 1981, Bell agreed to helm the Arkansas Department of Agriculture in 2005. From his new position Bell helps oversee the state with the largest rice crop in the nation.
Following Johanns' announcement, Bell was part of a joint teleconference with his counterparts in rice-growing states in the South.
“I had two questions. First, where is it in the South? That was never answered.
“Second, why are you deregulating it? They're in the process of deregulating it, which makes it eligible for commercialization. I guess the thinking is that will designate it safe for consumption. But I thought that was odd.
“And if you'll look at the press releases, there are two other LibertyLink varieties that have been deregulated but not commercialized. And by ‘commercialized’ we mean going into trade. That hasn't happened because the rice industry objected to it.”
Later, said Bell, the USDA floated an “off-the-wall proposal… They asked what we thought about removing limits on rice trading in Chicago on Monday morning.
“My answer to that was, ‘Well, that's why we have the rules in place. We don't want that to happen.’
“The rule is if the market is down the limit two days in a row, you extend the limits. If you go down the same for another couple of days, further steps are taken. But you don't take the bottom out of it. I'm glad they didn't do that.”
The question Bell hears the most is, “‘When will this end?’ I believe as we go through the next several weeks, the market loss will be regained. Rice supplies are tight.
“The other problem is not knowing what variety (the LibertyLink trait) is in. I've told farmers that if they have storage space to try and keep varieties separated. But everyone knows that by (the week of Aug. 28), we'll be in harvest in a big way. And as we don't have enough storage space, through necessity, varieties will be mixed.”